Friday, November 06, 2009

They looked from man to pig ...

How do you tell the difference between Fox News and the News & Observer, the purportedly liberal bastion of journalism in the capital of North Carolina? When it comes to clueless stoking of popular stupidity about social science research, you don't!

It's easy to see why "Sex Toy Study at Duke Raises Some Eyebrows" is a story at Fox:

DURHAM, N.C. — A campus religious leader is unhappy about a study at Duke University that invites female students to attend parties where they can buy sex toys.

Sex! Coeds! Offended spokesmen of the One True Faith! You can see why it was a big deal at Fox (and for the AP,* which appears to have transmitted it rather widely). And the hed, at least technically, could be true. The "campus religious leader" probably has two eyebrows, and if both of them went up, then it's safe to say that "eyebrows" (plural) were raised. It's harder to see why the hometown, or nearly so, N&O thought it was worth time, space and a byline:

DURHAM -- At Duke University, a school that likes to tout its cutting-edge research, a sex toy study being conducted by a behavioral economist and student health workers has roused criticism.

For much of October, researchers recruited female Duke students to take part in a "sexually explicit" study on Tupperware-style parties in which sex toys, not kitchenware, are the draw.

Explanatory fail in 3 ... 2 ... 1 ...

The ads, which were posted around campus and on a research study Web site, sought female students at least 18 years old to "view sex toys and engage in sexually explicit conversation with other female Duke students."

Things are starting to sound a lot more mysterious -- and, frankly, a lot more Professor LeFrenchy is coming to seduce your daughters -- than they are.

Participants will be asked to complete online questionnaires about their sexual attitudes and behaviors and visit the lab for a "one-hour party" with seven or eight women. Not only will the students be asked to complete a second questionnaire a couple of months later, they will receive a gift bag and be given the opportunity to purchase items at a significantly reduced rate, according to the ad.

So "not only" will they do exactly the sort of thing a study does when it wants to measure the effects of a treatment, they'll ... wait, what's in the gift bag? What kind of "items" do the little vixens get the discount on? Are they the same things as the ones in the gift bag?

Brief detour here while the newspaper looks for the answers it should have thought of a day ago. If you're going to do human subject research (and yes, undergraduates qualify), you need human subjects. You can wait for people who fit the study design to walk in and agree to help advance the sum of human knowledge out of sheer altruism, or you can recruit. If you recruit, it generally helps to offer an incentive. Money's nice, but it costs money. Extra credit is cheaper. At our former digs, a coupon for a slice and a drink is often a good compromise (free lunch, principle of).

It might sound kind of sinister to have been recruiting for "much of October," but be serious. Groups this size don't fill up overnight. Nor should the N&O be shocked to find out that the online recruiting notice has been taken down; there's nothing shady about stopping when you're done.

All of this -- did you notice the reference to "a peer review process"?** -- has been pondered and thought through and written out well in advance. If you want to do a study involving people, you get permission from an institutional review board first. The recruiting flyers would be considered just the first step in the consent process, if the B-school folks play by the rules in effect at the med school. Everything on the questionnaire would be approved. So would a protocol for the "party." So would the incentives. The researchers have to explain whether they expect to cause any harm and, if so, how they plan to mitigate it. If you want to know how to make this study sound like Girls Gone Mild in a hurry, try writing up the IRB application for it.

But back to the text:

Father Joe Vetter, director of the Duke Catholic Center, was so troubled by the ads that he contacted researchers at Duke student health services and Dan Ariely, the professor of behavioral economics at the Duke business school and senior fellow at the Duke Kenan Institute for Ethics involved in the study.

Since he's the only interested party who speaks in the story, it's hard to tell, but it sounds as if Father Vetter was treated very politely. There's no indication, at least, that anyone told him to keep his nose on his own side of the epistemological fence.

... Vetter hopes to take up the topic on Sunday with students. (Help yourself. I don't notice anybody demanding that he distribute Duke-logo sex toys before the offertory, though.) He wrote for the Sunday bulletin: "Can We Talk About Sex in Church?" (Almost as good as the one we diagrammed this semester: "They talked about sex with Dick Cavett."***)

Efforts to reach Ariely and others in charge of the research project were unsuccessful Thursday.

So hold the bloody story. What's so important that you can't wait a day to talk to the people whose comments might actually be relevant to how people understand this sort of thing? As opposed to running a single-source story that makes you look as if you've forgotten the tale of Jesse Helms and the poor TA who assigned "To His Coy Mistress"?

That's the real problem, I think. Research tends to be incremental and undramatic. (Girls Gone Wild is not my field, but I'm willing to bet that by the 50th questionnaire, those ones and zeroes are just as exciting as any other ones and zeroes the business school collects). The N&O needs to step up on its own and point out that there's less here than meets the eye, ruined-coed-wise. If it can't do that basic bit of journalism, how are we supposed to tell it from the deliberate know-nothings of the Fair 'n' Balanced Network?

* I have no idea why the lede at Charlotte is different; maybe it was rewritten one way at AP Raleigh before it went out nationally. Nor do I know why Charlotte didn't pick up the Raleigh story wholesale. Hyphenating "sex-toy study" in the hed, though, is the sort of thing desks do to demonstrate that they're paying attention.
** Which AP made "the peer review process," apparently for no reason other than the need for variation.
*** I got this from the Steven Pinker book and trust that The Ridger or someone will advise if it's misattributed.



Blogger John Cowan said...

The N & O, nothing. When it comes to sensationalist science-mangling, Fox and the Guardian are as one. Which is a scary thought.

2:35 AM, November 07, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Meh. Wacky doings at the university are a longtime frame of gown coverage by town newspapers. Much more entertaining here are the loony motives you ascribe to the journos involved. Concern about ruined coeds? Really? -- Oh, darn, OUCH! Just sustained an eye-rolling injury.

10:37 PM, November 07, 2009  

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